View from the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal in Venice during Italy's lockdown. (Photo by ANDREA PATTARO/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Altogether enough enjoyment

Venice after people

I’m trying to write a book about borders and borderlands in Europe. It has not been easy this year. My last trip before lockdown in March was to the eastern edge of Germany, to see the workshop of the anatomist Gunther Von Hagens in Guben. The town itself is a strange anatomical specimen, split down the middle by the river Neisse between the German east and the Polish west; looking around the Plastinarium and seeing those preserved hearts and lungs felt like a prelude to the corporeal concerns of the Covid-19 spring. My first steps back into field research in July were modest ones, only as far as the Belgian-German borderland of the Eifel, but in August I ended up on a slightly madcap journey from southern France across northern Italy arising from the sudden imposition of UK quarantine on travellers entering from France. As Grant Shapps said, “Only travel if you are content to unexpectedly 14-day quarantine if required (I speak from experience!)”.

The life of an author is poor in terms of financial compensation, even with the help of the Chancellor’s welcome emergency grants, but rich in terms of the personal freedom that means one can travel, quarantine and change plans at short notice. I’m prepared to take Grant Shapps’s wager, in this matter at least, because I need to and because I seem to have a profound need for changes of scene and seeking solace in places where the clammy grip of Boris Johnson’s government “putting its arms around the people” cannot reach. So it was that I went to the deeply peculiar exclave of Campione d’Italia, an Italian exclave within Switzerland dominated by a hulking bankrupt casino, and the Alpine corner where Italy, Austria and Slovenia come together. But the trip revolved around Milan and Venice.

I witnessed no British-style whinging and social-distancing indiscipline from the Italians

I hadn’t been to Milan for over 25 years. My familiarity with it dates back to the early 1990s, when I was going out with someone with roots in the city. It didn’t leave a positive impression. The city seemed polluted, expensive and ugly, and its rancid and hypocritical civic politics had just been exposed by the Tangentopoli (“bribesville” more or less) scandal. It also came across as monumentally snobbish. I remember ordering a coffee in a mundane café and my friend, who spoke excellent Italian, telling me that the barista and a patron were exchanging remarks about everything from my dress sense to the speed at which I ate peanuts. I became a bit Italy-averse. For years I wondered how Italy, such a sophisticated and cultured country, kept voting for such horrible politicians on the basis of election campaigns that insulted their intelligence, but I know now that the Italians were just ahead of the trend.

Maybe I have changed over the 25 years, but I’m sure Milan has as well. It was friendlier, kinder than it was in the 1990s. I dreaded attempting to obtain a table for dinner, being on my own, without a reservation, incompetent in the Italian language and not particularly good-looking, but I was welcomed at a fine restaurant (the White Rabbit in the Navigli area), given a nice table with a view over the canal, and was served some excellent food and wine by charming staff. My Italy-aversion vanished instantly.

Milan and the Lombardy region around it had the first horrific wave of Covid-19 to hit Europe and there was a high, but thankfully avoided, risk of the health service being overwhelmed back in March. Not surprisingly, health regulation compliance is still high in Lombardy. Supposedly anarchic Italians have nearly all uncomplainingly accommodated themselves to wearing masks, walking around the vast halls of Milano Centrale station through a labyrinthine one-way system and keeping their distance from each other. No British-style whinging and indiscipline for the Italians. For all the scorn that some commentators poured on the idea that there is anything for Britain to learn from the Italian state, it seems miles ahead in terms of getting the disease under control and getting the public on side.

Trauma can have a mellowing effect on places. I had first got to know New York City a little in the early 1990s when the classic New York traditions of frightening urban blight and gratuitous rudeness were still alive. I was particularly fond of the anecdote about someone who asked a passer-by for directions and got the response, “Lady, do I look like a fuckn’ map?” But I remember being surprised by the change when I visited for the first time following the September 11 attacks. People took the time, there was a more mellow vibe and more of a sense of looking out for each other. The wit is still alive, though: I was in Wall Street one Sunday in about 2012 and saw the rather idolatrous statue of the bull, its bronze testicles shiny from public caresses. I was urging my somewhat reluctant partner to “grab ‘em” for the sake of a photo, and a woman intervened with perfect timing: “good luck with that”.

Part of Venice is in Italy, the other is somewhere in the Byzantine and Ottoman eastern Mediterranean

Venice is not a borderland in a political sense, but it has what I recognise as a borderland culture. One foot is in Italy, the other is somewhere slippery in the Byzantine and Ottoman eastern Mediterranean. Turn a corner in the city, and one happens upon a church whose square footprints and squat domes could just as easily be in Istanbul or Jerusalem. Visiting Venice this summer will remain one of the peak experiences of my life. It reopened in June but the number of visitors is down by around two thirds on a normal year, which is disastrous for a city economy based almost entirely on tourism, but those visitors who can make it are in for something truly exceptional. The main drag that snakes from the station to the Rialto was still fairly busy by most standards, but venture into the back streets and side canals and soon you can be alone even in high summer. The pictures I took, with the canal water restored to the limpid turquoise colour one sees in Canaletto’s paintings and the open spaces of San Marco will be recognisable forever as being taken in 2020, the Covid-19 year.

I am a less cultured man than my Critic colleague Alasdair Palmer; or perhaps my appreciation of the architectural arts is the more developed part of my palate and therefore I am often satisfied by wandering the streets looking upwards – something normally next to impossible in a Venice tourist summer. But I partook of Venice’s splendour, popping into a large church floridly decorated by Tintoretto and sharing the pleasure with only a couple of other passers-by. The Doge’s Palace is normally a zoo surrounded by enormous queues, but this August one could turn up on spec, stand in line for less than half an hour, and take one’s own time exploring this art-encrusted aristocratic republican labyrinth. I tried to understand the political and legal institutions of the republic, designed with sufficient subtlety and flexibility to enable a self-perpetuating oligarchy to rule for centuries; our own elective dictatorship seems crude and blundering in comparison. I marvelled at the enormous council chamber, and stood alone on the Bridge of Sighs, trying to compose an arty photograph of the canal through the pattern in the stone.

Mass tourism creates a box ticking attitude for the visitor and a mercenary mentality among the local

Thinned-out tourism gives some breathing space for a healthier and more respectful relationship between visitor and place. Mass tourism, particularly when the lumbering cruise ships come in and tower over the delicate Venetian skyline, creates an extractive, box ticking attitude for the visitor and a mercenary mentality among the locals – pile those Chinese-made plastic souvenirs high, sell those defrosted pizzas for as much as you can get away with. This summer the traveller, if they can manage to visit at all, can afford to stay longer and develop a sense of belonging in the local area where they stay. I had “my” pancake maker, osteria and pizza parlour, “my” vaporetto stop and “my” canal by the time I left. The nightly rate I paid as a guest in a fourteenth-century palazzo was less than that at a station hotel in the provincial Austrian city of Villach. There was gentleness and grace to the very experience of visiting, for the first summer in decades.

Venice’s cultural associations make it a particularly appropriate place to visit in the Covid-19 summer. One can wander the near-empty back alleys and smaller canals getting pleasurably lost, or wrapped up in one’s morbid imaginings, until a glimpse of a child in a red t-shirt serves as a sinister reminder that death can come suddenly. Glance into the windows of the tourist shops and one sees beaked plague-doctor masks, and skulls beside them. After all, it is the Venetians themselves, and their embrace of trade and the exotic, who gave us the word “quarantine” in the first place.

There are other reminders of the threat of disease, which one can push to the back of one’s mind but never escape entirely. Travelling on public transport in Italy, or checking in to a hotel, means submitting to a temperature reading. The person at reception produces a small plastic gun, points it at the visitor’s head and fires. Notices about masks and social distancing are everywhere in the background, like the public health notices and the scent of antibacterial spray in Der Tod in Venedig: “The adventurer felt as if his eyes were drinking in this luxuriance, as if his ears were being wooed by these melodies; he also recollected that the city was sick and was disguising the fact so it could go on making money.” The time when I felt queasiest was getting onto the crowded water bus, but one could rationalise the poor social distancing as masks were everywhere and the breeze would surely disperse the miasma before it could do any harm? But maybe I was falling into the same sort of trap as Aschenbach, of staying in a fever dream of a city in doomed pursuit of beauty.

My rational, north European mind is reconciled to the risks of travel. These are fairly low if one takes sensible precautions and, as Shapps says, is prepared to change plans at short notice in the interests of health – one’s own and that of the public at home and abroad. I’m fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of this peculiar travel year. There is not a lot to lift the heart so far in 2020, but sipping an Aperol Spritz on a quiet canal in Venice, watching the sun set on a scene of sublime beauty and feeling surrounded by friends one doesn’t know yet will definitely count. Amid the disaster of Covid-19, there is a green shoot of a better way to do tourism which can be cultivated as we build back better. It may be that the huge floating virus incubators never come up the Giudecca Canal again, and that would be good. Even though I was doing good – for my own mental health, for the Venetian economy by spending and the British economy by getting work restarted, it still felt transgressive to travel this summer. Perhaps it always should.

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